Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades Ecosystem

A Case Study of Environmental and Economic Disruption

1/1

 Historically, the Florida Everglades received water from an extensive drainage area extending northward to a region just west of the city of Orlando, into the Kissimmee River Basin, south to Lake Okeechobee, then via seasonal overflow to the Everglades itself, which fed water to the tidal waters of Florida Bay. 

In addition, Lake Okeechobee also received flow from Fisheating Creek along its western boundary, Lake Istokpoga to the northwest, and from Taylor Creek/Nubbins Slough along its northern boundary. This massive watershed of approximately 9,000 square miles (5.8 million acres) is often referred to as the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades or KOE Basin. 

It is a very large stormwater and groundwater seepage management system that historically served to maintain high levels of water quality, while allocating flows and nutrients in rather consistent increments to associated lakes, swamps, marshes, and seasonal impoundments within the KOE and to the contiguous basins associated with areas such as the Big Cypress, the Caloosahatchee River, the Loxahatchee River, the Miami River and other systems both to the east and west. 

This pattern of nutrient and water scheduling provided stability to a collection of ecosystems which in turn supported a diversity of plants, fish and wildlife of importance to aboriginal indigenous cultures which relied upon this complex eco-structure for their sustenance. Aboriginal indigenous peoples of the KOE Basin lived within the context of this dynamic for thousands of years without inflicting serious degradation of its stability.

 

When Euro-American influence became predominant, the KOE was seen not so much as a means of providing sustenance for environmental features important to a developing society, or as a system whose dynamics and physical complexity needed to be protected and respected, but rather as a wet impediment to the expansion and comfort of European style society. As such an impediment, the KOE was perceived by most to have negative value. 

It was eventually recognized that by altering the flow patterns through diking, canalization, drainage, flood control structures, diversion and pumping, the KOE region could support crop agriculture and cattle with its prairies and rich organic soils, and would provide opportunity for residential and commercial development. What was not recognized during these early years was that these disruptions, while facilitating short-term financial gains, would over an extended period impose significantly upon both economic and environmental stability. 

During the past five decades, political preference has been given to permitting ecological degradation in favor of short-term financial advantage.

During this time, a handful of scientists and engineers have warned about the risks of making political decisions without proper consideration of scientific evidence.

 

Whether it was the decision to place a dike around Lake Okeechobee; implement the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project which took 1,000 square miles out of the Everglades for agriculture; dredge the Kissimmee River which hydrologically isolated thousands of acres of marsh critical for fish and wildlife breeding and habitation; continue high density septic tank development; allow residential development within historical floodplains; introduce high nutrient wastewaters into the groundwater system; or drain important aquifer recharge areas,

..... there were invariably economic and political forces which overwhelmed scientific concerns.

We are now facing the consequences of these short-sighted decisions.

The present Governor of Florida says the KOE is in a state-of-emergency. The truth is that the Florida’s environment has been stressed by constant degradation for several decades, and a state-of-emergency has existed for many years. 

For example, excessive nutrient loading related to escaped fertilizers, manures and other residuals from agricultural activities, as well as increasing urban development has, according to a recent study conducted by the University of Florida, resulted in the accumulation of over 110,000 metric tons of reactive, (i.e. available) phosphorus within the Lake Okeechobee Watershed. The report included estimates that this available phosphorus could sustain the high nutrient pollutant loads discharged from Lake Okeechobee for 200 years, even if the present incoming loads were completely eliminated. Many scientists recognized the significance of this legacy phosphorus as early as the seventies, but it is only recently that they have gained people’s attention.

The KOE system is but one example of how poor environmental management has created serious problems that now threaten economic stability. There are many other examples, including climate change, degradation of Chesapeake Bay, and long-term damage to the Ogallala Aquifer in the Nebraska-Oklahoma region. 

These and other environmental resources have been easy to exploit, but difficult to repair. We now suffer serious consequences. Future generations—our posterity - will suffer even more. 

These problems developed because political leaders, businesses and society as a whole have not listened to unbiased, bona fide scientists, nor have they until recently recognized that poor environmental management can threaten human health and safety and impact the economy in both obvious and subtle ways.  

In the past, our society has approached environmental management through compromise, with the demands of development, industry, agriculture and population expansion typically given preferential consideration. If we really are concerned about sustainability and long-term economic stability, any compromising would typically be in favor of ecological protection, rehabilitation and stability. 

While we read glowing reports about how well various programs are doing, the evidence tells us we are not doing enough. As we move to correct our poor management practices and consider our obligations to ourselves and to future generations, new management strategies that are sensitive to the interdependency of economic and environmental stability must be considered.